Two reactions have been common with regard to President Bush's Dec. 12 speech on a renewed faith-based initiative from the White House. Cynics mutter about a seasonal publicity measure: Light the Christmas tree, praise those doing the Lord's work, pass the political ammunition. Liberal activists complain about one sore spot: that by executive order religious organizations refusing to hire people of other faiths still will be able to win government contracts.
Both reactions miss the major breakthrough that the president's speech represents. Through three specific examples and declarations embedded in the speech, President Bush is taking sides on his initiative's most controversial issue: what to do with organizations that not only have a religious name but mix religious teaching with the provision of social services.
First, Bush presented an Iowa example of the "pattern of discrimination" against faith-based groups: "The Victory Center Rescue Mission was told to return grant money to the government because the mission's board of directors was not secular enough." The president argued that "government can and should support social services provided by religious people . . . faith-based programs should not be forced to change their character or compromise their mission."
The story behind Victory Center is significant. The homeless shelter in Clinton, Iowa, applying for a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant to build transitional housing, noted on its application form that it was a religious organization designed "to provide both spiritual and professional help and counseling to the needy." But several months after the grant was received, a HUD inspector complained about the shelter's chapel service and Bible studies. HUD cancelled the grant and demanded that Victory Center secularize its board of directors and program or pay back $100,000 already spent.
That Bush has gone to bat for the shelter is significant: He's saying that a program that includes religious teaching is still eligible for overall support. A second statement from his speech bulwarks that point: "FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] will revise its policy on emergency relief so that religious nonprofit groups can qualify for assistance after disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes." The White House offered up Seattle Hebrew Academy, a school that integrates religious teaching with all aspects of life, as the type of group that now will be treated just like other social service organizations that suffer damage.
Bush concluded his remarks with the signing of an executive order establishing new centers for faith-based and community initiatives, including one at the Department of Agriculture. That's important, because the Clinton administration cut off the long-established flow of surplus food to many faith-based homeless shelters and did not allow long-term residents in job-training programs to use food stamps at religious centers.
Organizations hit hard by these restrictions pointed out that secular alternatives were available for those who don't want any religion with their dinner, and that no one had to profess any sort of belief to receive services. Federal bureaucrats would not budge, and groups such as the Salvation Army in Nashville had to cut counseling to buy food, just as Bush noted on Dec. 12. "When government discriminates against religious groups, it is not the groups that suffer most," he said. "The loss comes to the hungry who don't get fed."
Bush pledged to come back next year with further steps to "help clear away a legacy of discrimination against faith-based charities." Early in 2001 Bush's assistants lost conservative support by stating that programs including religious teaching could not receive any governmental help. Now Bush is emphasizing his view that government should never pressure religious groups to compromise, and he's adding this ringing promise: "I don't intend to compromise either."
Go for it, Mr. President.
Marvin Olasky, author of Compassionate Conservatism, was an informal adviser to George W. Bush during the 1990s.